Shades of Twilight (Chapter 16)

"Damn, Webb," he finally said.

"Someone's got a real hardon for you."

"Tough. I'm not in the mood to get fucked." Carl cast a quick look at Webb. There was a cold, dangerous look on his face, an expression that boded ill for anyone who crossed him. Everyone knew Webb Tallant had a temper, but this wasn't temper: this was something else, something deliberate and ruthless.

"Got any ideas?" he asked.

"You've been back in town what a week and a half? You're making enemies real fast, serious ones.

"I think it s the same man who broke into the house," Webb said, "Interesting theory." Carl thought about it, stroking his jaw.

"So you don't think it was just a burglar?"

"Not now, I don't. Nothing has happened at Davencourt for the past ten years, until I came home."

Carl grunted, and stroked his jaw some more as he studied Webb.

"Are you saying what I think you're saying?"

"I didn't kill Jessie," Webb growled.

"That means some283

one else did, someone who was in our rooms. Normally, I would have been there. I never did go in for the late-night bar scene, and I didn't fool around with other women. Maybe Jessie surprised him, the way Roanna did. Roanna met up with him in the front hall; mine and Jessie's rooms were on the front left side, remember? Corliss has the rooms now, I sleep in a bedroom on the back, But the so-called burglar wouldn't have known that, would he?"

Carl whistled softly between his teeth.

"That would make you the intended victim all along, which means this is the third attempt to kill you. I tend to believe you, son, mainly because there wasn't a reason for you to kill Miss Jessie. That's what had us so buffaloed ten years ago. Whoever did it must have thought it was real funny, you being blamed for killing her. That would be better than killing you himself. Now, who hated you enough to try to kill you ten years ago, and stay mad this long?"

"Damn if I know," Webb said softly. For years he'd thought Jessie's secret lover must have killed her, but with these new developments that didn't make sense. It would have made sense for the murderer to try to kill him, but not for him to kill Jessie. It would even have been reasonable, if he wanted to think of murder as reasonable, for the two of them to plot to kill him. That would get him out of the way, and Jessie would have inherited more of the Davenport fortune. If she had simply divorced him, her inheritance wouldn't have been as much, because despite Jessie's threats she had to have known that Lucinda wouldn't have disinherited him just because they'd divorced. To her credit, he didn't think Jessie had been involved in a plot to murder him. Like Roanna, she had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but for Jessie the bad timing had been fatal.

Carl took a length of string from his pocket and tied one end of it around a pen. "Come hold this windshield up as straight as you can," he said, and Webb complied. Carl passed the free end of the string through the first bullet hole, threading it through until the pen caught on the outside and held. Then he tied the other end around another pen, this time securing the string under the pen's clip, and passed that pen through the holes in the back of the headrest.

He looked at the trajectory and whistled softly again.

"At the distance he was shooting from, if he'd adjusted his sights just a teeny bit to the right, that bullet would have caught you smack between the eyes."

"I noticed it was a fine shot," Webb said sarcastically. Carl grinned.

"Thought you might be a man who appreciated good marksmanship. How about the second bullet?"

"It went on through the trunk."

"Well, any good deer rifle would shoot a bullet with that much power over that distance. No way of tracing it, even if we could have found one of the slugs." He eyed Webb.

"You took a chance, stopping here like this."

"I was mad."

"Yeah, well, if there's a next time, cool off before you decide to go after someone who's armed. I'll have the car towed in, and my boys will go over it, but I don't think we'll find anything that will help us."

"In that case, I'd just as soon no one else knows about this. I'll take care of the car."

"Mind telling me why you want to keep it quiet?"

"Number one, I don't want him on guard. If he's relaxed, maybe he'll make a mistake. Number two, you can't do a whole hell of a lot anyway. You can't give me an escort everywhere I go, and you can't keep a twenty-four-hour watch on Davencourt. Number three, if Lucinda finds out, it just might kill her."

Carl grunted.

"Webb, your folks need to know to be careful."

"They do. The so-called burglar spooked them. We have new deadbolt locks now, more secure windows, and we're wired to an alarm that, if it goes off, will set every dog inside a thirty-mile radius to howling. it's not any secret in Tuscumbia that we've done this, either."

"So you think he knows, and isn't likely to try getting into the house again?"

"He's gotten in twice before without any trouble. Instead of trying it again, this time he tried to shoot me off the road. Sounds as if he heard the news."

Carl crossed his arms and stared at him.

"Miss Lucinda's big party is tonight."

"You think he could be among the guests," Webb said. He'd already thought of that himself.

"I'd say there's a good chance. You might want to take a look at the guest list and see if you recognize the name of someone you didn't get along with, somebody who came out on the short end of some business deal. Hell, he wouldn't even have to be invited; from what I hear, so many people will be there that he could waltz right in and no one would notice."

"You were invited, Carl. Are you coming?"

"Couldn't keep me away. Booley will be there, too. Is it okay if I ran all of this by him? That old dog is still pretty sly, and if he knows to be watching, he might see something."

"Sure, tell Booley. But no one else, you hear?"

"All right, all right," Carl grumbled. He looked at Webb's car again.

"You want me to give you a ride up to the house?"

"No, everyone would ask questions. Take me back to town. I have to get something else to drive anyway, and I'll arrange to have this one taken care of. As far as anyone is concerned, I had car trouble." He looked at his watch.

"I'll be pushing it to get home in time for the party."

The guests were due to arrive in only half an hour, and Webb was nowhere around. All of the family was already there, including his mother and Aunt Sandra. Yvonne was beginning to pace, because it wasn't like Webb to be late to anything, and Lucinda was growing increasingly fretful.

Roanna sat very still, holding her own worry inside. She didn't let herself think about car accidents, because she couldn't bear it. Her own parents had died that way, and since then she shrank from the very idea of an automobile accident. If she passed one on the highway, she never rubbernecked but carefully kept her gaze averted and got past the accident site as soon as she could. Webb couldn't have been in an accident, he simply couldn't Then they heard the front door open, and Yvonne rushed to the door.

"Where have you been?" Roanna heard her demand with a mother's asperity.

"I had car trouble," Webb replied as he took the stairs two at a time. He was back downstairs in fifteen minutes, freshly shaved and wearing the black-tie apparel on which Lucinda had insisted.

"Sorry I'm late," he said to everyone as he crossed to the liquor cabinet and opened the doors. He poured himself a shot of tequila and tossed it back, then set the glass down and gave them a reckless grin.

"Let the games begin."

Roanna couldn't take her eyes off him. He looked like a buccaneer despite the fineness of his clothes. His thick dark hair was still black with dampness and brushed into a severe style. He moved with the lithe grace of a man accustomed to formal clothes, without a trace of self-consciousness. The jacket sat perfectly on his broad shoulders, and the trousers were just snug enough to look trim without being binding. Webb had always worn his clothes well, no matter what they were. She had thought no one could took better than he did in jeans and boots and chambray work shirt, and now she thought no one looked better in black tie. Jet studs marched down the front of his snow white shirt, which had rows of tiny tucks, and matching jet cuff links gleamed darkly at his thick wrists.

She hadn't talked privately with him since the night he'd come to her room, and she had told him why she hadn't seen the burglar. Webb had forbidden her to work at all until the family doctor had checked her and given her the all clear, which he'd done just the day before. Truth to tell, for the first several days after she'd gotten home from the hospital, she hadn't felt like working or doing anything except sitting very still. The headache had been persistent, and if she had moved around much, she suffered a recurrence of that nausea that went with concussion. It was only 287

in the past two days that the headache had gone away, and the nausea with it. She didn't think she would risk dancing tonight, though.

Webb had been busy, and not just with work. He had overseen the installation of steel-reinforced doors on the main entrances, dead-bolt locks on even the French doors, and an alarm system that had made her pull a pillow over her head to buffer the sound when it was tested. If she couldn't sleep and wanted the veranda doors open so she could enjoy the fresh air, first she had to punch in a code on a small box installed by the window of every room. If she opened the doors without entering the code, the resulting blast would jolt everyone out of their beds.

Between her headache and his work, there simply hadn't been time for a private talk. In the drama of her injury, most of her embarrassment had faded away. After his midnight visit to her room, the subject hadn't come up again, as if they both wanted to avoid it.

"My, you look handsome," Lucinda said now, eyeing Webb up and down.

"Better than you did before, if you don't mind my saying so. Wrestling cows, or whatever it was you did in Arizona, certainly kept you in shape."

"Steers," he corrected, his eyes gleaming with amusement.

"And, yes, I wrestled a few of them."

"You said you had car trouble," Yvonne said.

"What's wrong with it?" "The transmission went out," he said smoothly.

"I had to have it towed."

"What are you driving then?"

"A pickup truck." His eyes gleamed greenly as he said it, and Roanna saw the fine tension in him, a sort of heightened state of alertness, as if he were poised for some sort of crisis that only -he anticipated. At the same time there was an obvious amusement in the line of his mouth, and she saw him glance expectantly at Gloria.

"A truck," Gloria said with disdain.

"I hope it doesn't take long to get your car repaired."

The amusement became even more pronounced, though Roanna wondered if she was the only one who saw it.

"Doesn't matter," he said, and grinned in wicked relish.

"I bought the truck."

If he'd expected a tirade, Gloria didn't disappoint him. She launched into a lecture on "how it looks for one of our family to drive such a common vehicle."

When she segued into the part about the image they had to uphold, Webb's eyes gleamed even brighter. He said, "It's four-wheel drive, too. Big tires, like the kind bootleggers use so they can get into the woods." Gloria stared at him, aghast and momentarily silenced, as her face turned red.

Lucinda was hiding her smile behind her hand. Greg coughed and turned away to look out the window.

Corliss was also looking out the window. She said, "My God, it looks like that scene in Field of Dreams. " Lucinda, understanding exactly what she meant, stood up and said with evident satisfaction, "Of course it does. If I give a party, they will come."

That remark elicited laughter from everyone except Roanna, but Webb noticed that a smile briefly touched her lips. That was the third one, he thought.

Soon the house was brimming over with laughing, chattering people. Some of the men wore black tie, but most of them were in dark suits. The women were arrayed in a variety of styles ranging from above-the-knee cocktail dresses to tea length to more formal long gowns. Everyone in the Davenport and Tallant families wore long gowns, again at Lucinda's direction. She knew exactly how to make an impression and set the tone.

Lucinda looked good, better than she had in a long time. Her white hair was in a queenly twist on the back of her head, and her pale peach gown, aided by a skillful application of cosmetics, lent its delicate color to her face. She had known what she was doing by insisting on peach-colored lights.

While Lucinda held court with her friends, Roanna quietly saw to it that everything ran smoothly. The caterer was very efficient, but disaster had been known to strike even the most rigidly organized of parties. Waiters hired for the evening moved through the crowd with trays laden with glasses of pale gold champagne or with a dazzling array of hors d'oeuvres. For those who had heartier appetites, a huge buffet had been set up. Out on the patio, the band had already begun playing old standards, luring people outside to dance under the peach fairy lights.

Roanna noticed Webb moving through the crowd, talking easily with people, stopping to tell a joke or make a few remarks about politics, then going on to another group. He seemed perfectly relaxed, as if it hadn't occurred to him that anyone might look askance at him, but still she could see his increased tension in the hard, bright glitter of his eyes. No one would say anything derogatory about him in his presence, she realized. There was a power about him that made him stand out even in this crowd of social elites, a personal assurance that not many people had. He really didn't give a damn what any of them thought. Not for his own sake, at least. He came across as both relaxed and self-assured but ready to act if necessary.

Around ten o'clock, when the party had been going strong for over two hours, he came up behind her as she was surveying the buffet table to make certain nothing needed replenishing. He stood so close that she felt the heat of his big body, and he rested his right hand on her waist.

"Are you feeling all right?" he asked in a low voice.

"Yes, I'm fine," she said automatically as she turned to face him, repeating the same words she had used at least a hundred times that night in answer to the same question. Everyone had heard about the burglar, and her concussion, and wanted to know about it.

"You look fine," everyone else had said, but Webb didn't. Instead he was looking at her hair.

The stitches in her scalp had been removed just the day before when she had gone to the family doctor. Today, in preparation for the party, she had gone to her hairdresser,

who had gently arranged her hair in a sophisticated twist that concealed the small shaved patch.

"Can you tell?" she asked anxiously.

He knew what she meant.

"No, not at all. Is your head still sore?"

"Just a little. It's tender rather than actually sore."

He lifted his hand from her waist and flicked one of her dangling earrings, setting the gold stars to dancing.

"You look good enough to eat," he said quietly.

She blushed, because she had hoped she looked attractive tonight. The creamy gold of her gown complemented her warm complexion and the dark chestnut of her hair.

She looked up at him, and her breath caught in her chest. He was looking down at her with a hard, intense, hungry cast on his face. Time suddenly seemed to stand still around them, people fading from her consciousness, the noise and music muted. Her blood throbbed through her veins, slowly, powerfully.

This was the way he had looked the day they'd gone riding together. She had mistaken it for lust .. . or had she been mistaken?

They were utterly alone there in the middle of the crowd. Her body quickened, her breath coming fast and shallow, her breasts rising as if to his touch. The ache of wanting him was so intense that she thought she would die.

"Don't," she whispered.

"If you don't mean it … don't."

He didn't reply. Instead his gaze moved slowly down to her breasts, lingered, and she knew her nipples were visibly erect. A muscle twitched in his jaw.

"I want to make a toast."

Lucinda knew how to make herself heard in a crowd without appearing to raise her voice. Slowly the chatter of hundreds of voices stilled, and everyone turned toward her as she stood slightly alone, frail but still queen.

The spell that had held Roanna and Webb in its grip was shattered, and Roanna shuddered in reaction as they both turned to face Lucinda.

"To my grand-nephew, Webb Tallant," Lucinda said

clearly, and lifted her glass of champagne to Webb.

"I missed you desperately while you were away, and I'm the happiest old lady in Colbert County now that you're back."

It was another of her masterful strokes, forcing people to toast him, acknowledge him, accept him. All over the room glasses were lifted to Webb, champagne was drunk to his return, and a chorus of "Welcome home" filled the room. Roanna, whose hands were empty, gave him a fleeting, rueful smile.

Number four, he thought. That was two in one night. Her nerves felt raw from the silently charged interval that had passed between them. She slipped away into the crowd and worked her way outside to make certain everything was okay on the patio. Couples strolled over the grounds, their way lit by the thousands of lights woven into the trees and bushes, the maze of electrical cords carefully covered with foam stripping and taped over so no one would trip over them. The band had moved out of old standards, having sufficiently warmed up the dancing crowd, and was now playing more lively tunes, specifically "Rock Around the Clock." At least fifty people were bopping their hearts out on the dance floor.

The tune ended to applause and laughter, and then there was one of those errant little pockets of silence in which the words "killed his wife" were clearly heard.

Roanna stopped, her expression freezing. The silence spread as people looked uncomfortably at her. Even the band members stood still, not knowing what was going on but aware that something had happened. The woman who had been talking turned around, her face dark red with embarrassment.

Roanna stared steadily at the woman, who was a Cofelt, a member of one of the oldest families in the county. Then she looked around at all the other faces, frozen in the lovely peach light as they watched her. These people had come to Webb's home, enjoyed his hospitality, and still talked about him behind his back. It wasn't just Cora Cofelt, who had been unlucky enough to be heard. All of these faces were guilty because they too had been saying the same thing she had. If they had possessed any good judgment to begin with, she thought with growing fury, they would have realized ten years ago that Webb couldn't possibly have killed his wife.

It was common courtesy that a hostess do nothing to embarrass one of her guests, but Roanna felt anger move through her. She trembled with the rush of emotion, the sheer energy. It flowed through her until even her fingertips tingled.

She had endured a lot on her own account. But, by God, she wasn't going to stand there and let them slander Webb.

"You people were supposed to have been Webb's friends," she said in a clear, strong voice. She had seldom in her life been angrier, except at Jessie, but this was a different kind of anger. She felt cool, perfectly in control of herself.

"You should have known ten years ago that he would never have harmed Jessie, you should have supported him instead of putting your heads together and whispering about him. Not one of you-not one-expressed any sympathy to him at Jessie's funeral. Not one of you spoke up in his behalf. But you've come to his house tonight as guests, you've eaten his food, you've danced … and you're still talking about him."

She paused, looking from face to face, then continued.

"Perhaps I should make my family's position clear to everyone, in case there's been any misunderstanding. We support Webb. Full stop, period. If anyone of you here feels you can't associate with him, then please leave now, and your association with the Davenports and the Tallants will be at an end."

The silence on the patio was thick, embarrassed. No one moved. Roanna turned to the band.

"Play-"something slow," Webb said from behind her. His hand, hard and warm, curled around her elbow.

"I want to dance with my cousin, and her head is still too sore for bopping."

A spatter of self-conscious laughter ran around the patio. The band began playing "Blue Moon," and Webb turned her into his arms. Other couples moved together and began swaying to the music, and the crisis was over.

He held her with the distance of cousins, not the closeness of a man and a woman who had lain naked together amid tangled sheets. Roanna stared at his throat as they danced.

"How much did you hear?" she asked, her voice quiet and level once more.

"Everything," he said carelessly.

"You were wrong about one thing, though."

"What was that?"

A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance, and he looked up at the dark sky as a sudden cool breeze arrived with the promise of rain. After days of teasing, it looked as if a storm was finally coming. When he glanced back down at her, his green eyes were glittering, "There was one person who offered me sympathy at Jessie's funeral." The party was over, the guests gone home. The band ha(I unplugged and loaded up, and they, too, were gone. The caterer and her staff had cleaned, washed, and efficiently stored everything in two vans and driven away, tired but well paid.

Lucinda, exhausted by the superhuman effort she had made that night, had gone immediately up to bed, and everyone else had soon followed.

The storm had lived up to its promise, arriving with great sheets of lightning, window-rattling thunder, and torrents of rain. Roanna watched 0 the drama from the dark safety of her room, snugly curled in her chair. The veranda doors were thrown open so she could get the full effect of it, smell the freshness of the rain and watch the wind sweep it across the land in battering waves. She was cuddled under a light, baby-soft afghan, deliciously chilled by the dampness in the air. She was relaxed and a little drowsy, hypnotized by the rain, her body sinking into the chair's comforting depths in utter relaxation.

The worst of the storm had already passed, and the rain had settled down into a steady, heavy downpour accompanied by an occasional flash of lightning. She was content to 295

sit there, remembering-not the scene on the patio, but that moment before Lucinda's toast when she and Webb had been caught in a private bubble of suspended time, desire pulsing thickly between them.

It had been desire, hadn't it? Sweet, hot. His gaze had drifted, as heated as a torch, down to her breasts. They had throbbed, her nipples lifting to him. She hadn't been mistaken in his intent, she couldn't have been. Webb had wanted her.

Once she would have gone to him, heedless of everything except her desire to be with him. Now she remained in her own room, watching the rain. She wouldn't chase after him again. He knew that she loved him, he'd known it all her life. The ball was now in his court, for him to hit it back or let it go by. She didn't know what he would do or if he would do anything at all, but she had meant what she'd told him at the party. If he wasn't serious in his attentions, then she didn't want them.

Her eyes drifted shut as she listened to the rain. It was so soothing, so peaceful; she felt at rest, whether or not she slept that night.

A faint scent of cigarette smoke came to her. She opened her eyes, and he was there, standing in the open doors, watching her. His gaze bored through the darkness of the room. The sporadic flashes of lightning revealed her to him, her eyes shadowed and calm, her body relaxed and waiting … waiting.

In the same brief moments of illumination she could see the way he lounged there with one shoulder against the door frame, a negligent posture that in no way concealed the tension in his coiled muscles, the intensity of the way he watched her, like a predator focusing on its prey.

He had partially undressed. His coat was gone and his black tie. The snowy white shirt was unbuttoned and pulled free of his pants, and it hung open across his broad chest. A half-smoked cigarette was in his hand. He turned and flicked it over the veranda railing, out into the rain, and then he was silently crossing the room to her, his tread lithe and pantherish.

Roanna didn't move, didn't say anything in either welcome or rejection.

This move was his.

He knelt in front of the chair and put his hands on her legs, smoothing the afghan across her knees. The heat of his touch burned her through the covering.

"God knows, I've tried to stay away from you," he muttered.

"Why?" she asked, her voice low, the question simple. He gave a rough laugh.

"God knows," he said again. Then he tugged gently on the afghan, pulling it away from her and dropping it to the floor beside the chair. Just as gently he slipped his hands under the hem of her nightgown and caught her ankles. He pulled her legs out of their tucked position, straightening them, and spread them so that he was between them.

Roanna caught a deep, shuddering breath.

"Are your nipples hard?" he whispered. She could barely speak.

"I don't know.. .

"Let me see." And he slid his hands all the way up her body, under the nightgown, and closed his fingers over her breasts. Until he touched them, she hadn't realized how desperate she had been for this. She moaned aloud at the relief, the pleasure. Her nipples stabbed his palms. He rubbed his thumbs over them and laughed softly.

"I do believe they are," he whispered.

"I remember the way they taste, the way they feel in my mouth."

Her breasts lifted into his hands with every quick, sighing breath. Desire was coiling hotly in her loins, loosening her, turning her flesh warm and pliable to his touch.

He lifted the nightgown up and over her head, pulling it away and dropping it to the floor as he had the afghan. She sat naked before him in the huge chair, her slender body dwarfed by its bulk. Lightning flickered again, briefly revealing the details of breast and loin, tightly puckered nipples and opened thighs. His breath hissed through his teeth, his broad chest expanding. Slowly he stroked his;9 7

hands up her legs, pushing her thighs wider and wider apart until she was fully exposed to him.